Yuppie chow defended

Loblaws organic tea boxThe Globe‘s Michael Valpy gets 900 words in today’s Globe to summarize a forthcoming research paper from Irena Knezevic, an academic who doesn’t like that big corporations are selling organic food.Valpy:

She says [big companies like Coca-Cola and Kraft] products – along with those sold by retail giants such as Loblaws and Wal-Mart – are turning organic agriculture into product brands that are becoming “a marketing tool more so than an assurance of quality, let alone an assurance of a fair and sustainable production process.”

Officials from Loblaws and Wal-Mart were unavailable for comment last night.

This trend, says Ms. Knezevic, is driven by consumer demand, with the food industry’s eager willingness to jump on the bandwagon and make organic consumption efficient and slightly less expensive by mass-producing – creating only a slightly “greener” version of the dominant industrial food system but separating organic agriculture from its central concepts.

It takes a normative judgment to decide what organic agriculture’s “central concepts” are. And indeed, Knezevic makes one: “Organic agriculture is by definition intertwined with environmentalism, resistance to corporate globalization and the ‘back to the land’ movement.”

Knezevic, if her paper is being summarized fairly, seems to want to include not only factual declarations about the use of pesticides and fertilizers and other planet-friendly techniques, but also small-scale farming and an anti-corporate attitude on the part of the farmer.

Significantly, Knezevic is a PhD candidate in a communications and culture program, not anything to do with food science or economics. She’s presented a previous paper on “How corporations and the PR industry make big pharma look good.”

It seems to me that again we’re asking an “Organic” label to do something it can’t possibly — indicate not just the chemical conditions under which a particular food item was produced, but the political and economic conditions, too.

All this having been said, while I don’t share Knezevic’s apparent judgment that “organic” should be interchangeable with “good” in every way meaningful to the environmental left, she’s right that there’s a danger in labels that are effectively meaningless. There’s a danger that as organic foods become increasingly attractive positional goods — things people like to show off to demonstrate how cool they are — some shady labelling standards will spring up to approve any old thing. If indeed a particular mango was grown organically, but as a result comes from so much farther away from the market than an industrial mango that the environmental benefit is obviated, buying organic doesn’t do anybody any favours.

But neither does saying big companies can do nothing right just because they’re big companies, or saying that efficient production aimed at making organics more affordable for more people is necessarily bad.

The paper comes out for real on Friday, and I’m looking forward to Knezevic’s wrestling with these problems.

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One response to “Yuppie chow defended

  1. I agree with you about the organic label. Just when you think you are doing something good for your body and for the earth, someone else negates it all. Where do you draw the line, and by what standards do you judge items? It’s all so complicated.

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